The Gentleness of God

The much-loved hymn, ‘I greet thee who my sure Redeemer art’ – included in the Strasbourg Psalter of 1545 and attributed to John Calvin – contains the lines,

Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness,

No harshness hast Thou, and no bitterness

These words have often drawn comment, or been quoted because they point to a divine attribute we can easily overlook.

They stand out in part because, if they were indeed penned by the great French Reformer, come from a man who has been caricatured as harsh and austere. This is a misperception, if ever there was one! Any true glimpse of Calvin – not least as husband and father, let alone as a pastor-theologian – reveals him to be kind-hearted, loving and patient. His gentleness of spirit and deep compassion for those under his care shines through consistently.

The words of this hymn stand out even more because they speak of the God whose voice ‘thunders…is powerful…is full of majesty’ and ‘breaks the cedars’ (Ps 29.3-5). He is ‘mightier than the thunder of many waters’ (Ps 93.4). He is the One before whom all the earth ‘trembles’ (Ps 96.9). Yet he is gentle and tender in his dealings with people generally, but especially with those he has redeemed and made his very own.

He is indeed great and terrible, to be feared above all other gods; but this only serves to accentuate the wonder of his gentleness and deepen our loving reverence for him. More than this, it provides a vital perspective on his dealings with us – especially when we find ourselves in the midst of seemingly harsh providences.

It is striking to see the range of images the Lord uses to press home this aspect of his character. In Deuteronomy he speaks of his ‘everlasting arms’ that are round about and underneath his people (Dt 33.27). In Isaiah, he pictures himself as a shepherd who carries the lambs of the flock ‘in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young’ (Isa 40.11). Later on in that same prophecy he says, ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you’ (Isa 49.15). In all three instances – and others like them – God’s words stand out because they are addressed to his people when they have strayed from him and deserve only his fatherly chastisement.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable statements about this aspect of God’s character is found in the Psalms when David says, ‘You have given me your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great’ (Ps 18.35). J.A. Alexander notes that the noun used in the original ‘means humility, as an attribute of human character (Pr 15.33), but when applied to God, benignant self-abasement, condescending kindness to inferiors.’[1] David was clearly conscious of God’s mercy towards him on multiple levels, not least in the fact he had not dealt with him in the way his sins deserved.

David’s choice of words in this verse point forward in God’s redemptive purpose to the most extraordinary display of all of the divine gentleness in the One through whom salvation came. Namely, that it was his only begotten Son whom he sent to be our Saviour and that he did this in a breath-taking display of gracious condescension.

The NIV (1984 Edition) paraphrases this verse in a way that well captures all the nuances it contains: ‘You stoop down to make me great.’ How well this captures the mercy behind the miracle of the incarnation. Here was the Maker of the cosmos joining himself to the dust of the earth in order that he might take that dust to glory. And his presence in heaven is the guarantee that all who are joined to him by faith and through his Spirit will one day be with him forever.

So too, in light of this, we can hardly be surprised by the fact that the gentleness of God shines through in the life of the incarnate Son. He is truly the one who is gentle and lowly. In all his dealings with people in every circumstance of life – right down to his concern for his mother at the cross – his gentle spirit is manifest in his heart for others.

The extension of this great truth must surely be that this gentleness becomes a defining hallmark of his children. That, as we too are willing to stoop down for the sake of others as we care for and serve them, God will minister his grace to them also to give them a greatness that this world can never offer.

[1] Alexander, J.A. The Psalms Translated and Explained, (Baker Book House; Grand Rapids MI) 1975 p.83


Mark Johnston